PERSONAL STORY NETWORK
Born Into Hepatitis C: Change Your Environment, Change Your Life
I grew up in a dysfunctional family. My dad passed away when I was three months old. My mom and stepdad took care of me and my 10 siblings. My mother thought she was just being a strict disciplinarian, but she was abusive—verbally, emotionally and physically. We didn’t know it right away, but she was dealing and using drugs. In the end, she managed to get clean and sober and turned out to be the best mom ever. But it was a rough start.
On top of this, by the time I turned 12, a close friend of our family started giving me a lot of attention. This man was supposed to be my guardian and he molested and raped me. I was too young to realize it wasn’t right or normal. It wasn’t until I heard something on TV about sexual abuse I knew any better.
I was always trying to be a good kid, go to church and do my best in school. But as a young girl, it was truly difficult to escape from my abusive, dysfunctional home environment. In an effort to cope, I quickly followed my mom down the path to drugs.
By my early teenage years, I’d moved from marijuana to pills to intravenous drugs. It seemed like my only option early on. I couldn’t physically escape from my environment, but with drugs, at least I could escape mentally.
Leaving a Lifestyle of Drugs
I was an intravenous drug user for the next 10 to 15 years—not every day though; there were periods of time when I was clean, but I continued to fall back into the habit. I had two daughters of my own and because of them, I tried to keep my addiction under wraps. I was a functional junkie.
Of course, I didn’t want to be doing drugs in the first place. But it wasn’t until I was 27 years old that I was finally able to leave that lifestyle behind for good.
I wanted things in life. I wanted things to be better for my daughters. I wanted to get myself together so I could help others who were struggling with drugs.
I went to treatment centers, I participated in AA and had a sponsor. But as it turned out, helping other people really helped me get myself together.
I started out as a VISTA volunteer, which stands for Volunteers in Service to America—a national service program that aims to bring people out of poverty. Later I also got involved in an HIV outreach program. The trick for me was surrounding myself with positive people who offered encouragement. For years, I had cravings, but it’s your actions that determine whether you’ll use or not. And your actions are determined by your environment and the people around you. Getting involved in the community helps keep you occupied. It’s helped me stay clean and sober since 1992.
Entering a World of Hepatitis C
It wasn’t until 2002 that my doctor diagnosed me with hepatitis C. The news was devastating. For about a week, I was in denial that after 10 years of being drug- and alcohol-free, I was still suffering the consequences. It was infuriating. But eventually, I accepted the reality, educated myself about the virus and sought treatment.
The early treatment programs were debilitating; you couldn’t undergo treatment and hold down a job at the same time. The first three times I went on medication, I was unable to even complete the treatment schedule. I’d have to be on these drugs for six months, sometimes a whole year. And every time, my body couldn’t tolerate the drugs and side effects. And I couldn’t afford to not work.
Between fighting drug addiction and fighting hepatitis C, fighting hepatitis C was worse. With drugs and alcohol, you know all you have to do is stop abusing. Yes, you’ll go through withdrawal for a while, but as long as you want to stay clean more than you want to use, you can put it behind you.
But in my first three experiences with treatment, my body went through intense ups and downs, reacting physically and mentally to the drugs. Worse yet, even if I managed to complete the treatment, there was no guarantee I’d be cured.
Community Support and Giving Back
But there’s a new treatment available for hepatitis C now. For some people, it only takes 12 weeks, compared to a year with previous treatment options. But more importantly, the new treatment is far more effective.
For me, the fourth time was a charm. The new treatment was still grueling and I had to stick with it for 24 weeks, which isn’t the case for everybody. But I don’t have hepatitis C anymore.
How did I do it? How did I find the strength to go through another treatment after trying and failing three times before?
I relied on others to give me strength. My hepatologist, Dr. Gia Tyson, was my biggest supporter. I wouldn’t have finished treatment without her. Of course, it also helps if you have family and friends as part of your support team, but there are other resources available, too.
Just like I would go to AA meetings and detox centers and get involved in their programs, I found online communities and support groups. Again, it was about finding an environment that could give me the encouragement I needed.
There are people who can help you withstand treatment, people who have been there, who can offer advice, who have come out the other side. I should know; I’m one of them.
If you can’t find a local support group, ask your doctor to connect you with other patients. Be proactive in reaching out for the community you need and I promise you’ll find it. Don’t ever give up.
Sheryl lives in Baton Rouge near her daughters and granddaughter, Dior. She’s still actively involved in her community. In recent years, she has specifically focused on raising awareness of hepatitis C. Monday through Friday, you can find her driving the yellow bus to local elementary and high schools.